Bangkok Braces for Action Against Protesters

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Sakchai Lalit / AP

Anti-government protesters set up the barrier in front of Don Mueang airport in Bangkok

Thailand appeared to be bracing for a crackdown on anti-government protesters occupying Bangkok's two main airports on Friday evening, as riot police gathered near the airfields and a government spokesman claimed the administration had international support to use force against the demonstrators.

That spokesman's claim was quickly denied by a Thailand-based representative of Human Rights Watch, who said the government must act responsibly in dealing with the demonstrators.

Several thousands protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy have seized New Bangkok International Airport and Don Muang domestic airport since Tuesday in an attempt to force the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to resign. They claim the government's attempts to rewrite the country's constitution will wipe away corruption convictions and court cases against the ruling People Power Party and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is Somchai's brother-in-law.

Rumors already swirling across the country of an imminent military coup were further fueled by a spokesman for Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat who told The Nation newspaper on Friday that the prime minister would remain in the northern city of Chiang Mai because of uncertainty related to movements of the armed forces. Tanks were seen in several locations around Bangkok on Thursday, but Army Commander in Chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda, who urged the prime minister the day before to dissolve parliament to hold new elections and the PAD to end its demonstrations, denied his forces would topple the government.

Government spokesman Natthawut Saikua said Friday that Thaksin, who fled Thailand in August rather than serve a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction, was ready to make publicly broadcast phone calls to supporters around the clock to urge them to fight a coup. "If a coup is staged, Thaksin will fight against it along side with Thais. He can make phone calls to us 24 hours a day," Natthawut said. Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, but later returned to Thailand earlier this year after elections were held.

Meanwhile, the government removed National Police Chief General Gen Phatcharawat Wongsuwan on Friday without giving a reason. "Nobody wants to have blood on their hands," said Sunai Phasuk, the HRW representative in Thailand. He said that the police chief, like the army chief, was reluctant to move quickly against the protesters for fear of a bloodbath. Police officials had said on Thursday they would begin by trying to talk the protesters out of the airports.

Government spokesman Natthawut took a harder line. "I am informed by a non-governmental organization that the international human rights organizations and foreign diplomats want government to evacuate over 3,000 tourists to safety first, then the government can do anything with the protesters. They will not oppose or question government about it actions against the protesters," Natthawut told reporters.

Sunai said that was a distortion of a conversation he had with Natthawut in which he told the spokesman that the government had a responsibility to maintain law and order, but it couldn't just go into the airport with guns and use violence.

The risk of violence appears to be high, as police seized two PAD pickup trucks Friday heading to the airport carrying homemade guns and arrested the occupants. PAD guards have shot at pro-government supporters who pelted PAD members traveling to the airport in recent days. Several PAD guards have also been killed or wounded in recent days by grenade attacks by government supporters.

"The PAD has become an armed group," Sunai said. While the group's guards are armed, most PAD members occupying the airports are not. They are a mix of middle-aged women and men, and some parents with children.

Sunai strongly criticized PAD leaders for not demanding that parents with children leave the airports, as a police move against the protesters was being prepared. "They are getting like Jim Jones," Sunai said, referring to the American religious cult leader who led more than 900 of his followers in a mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.

See pictures of the Thai anti-government protests here.